Lutalo Muhammad: Taekwondo athlete says Tokyo 2020 training 'feels like limbo'
IOC urged to review plans to go ahead with Games during coronavirus by Sport and Rights Alliance and the World Players Association
By Jacquie Beltrao
Last Updated: 21/03/20 11:36am
These are tough times for professional athletes four months out from the Olympic Games.
With warm-up and qualifying events postponed or cancelled, two-time Taekwondo Olympic medalist Lutalo Muhammad feels they are all training in limbo, even if they are lucky enough to still be able to train.
"Mentally it's been very difficult these last few days," he says. "I feel like the rug has been pulled from under me.
"It's not just me, I'm in contact with lots of athletes from a lot of different sports and a lot of people feel a bit lost right now. To train without an obvious goal you feel like you're training in limbo.
- Cancelling Tokyo 2020 not on agenda - IOC
- Olympic flame arrives in Japan
- Coronavirus latest: How outbreak is affecting sport
"Things have been cancelled, you're not sure about rescheduling. It's a bit strange, I've ever experienced anything like this.
"We've been training for four years - everything is geared up to the Olympics, there's definitely a feeling of uncertainty but we have to trust that the IOC will make the best decision. Let's see."
A bronze medalist in 2012 and a silver medalist in Rio, Muhammad is British Taekwondo's most successful ever male athlete, famous for breaking down in tears after missing out on the gold medal in the very last second of the 2016 final.
But four years of injury mean he isn't an automatic selection this time for the one heavyweight (87k plus) spot on the team, instead it's between him and Mahama Cho.
Having got back to winning ways before Christmas with a big victory at the French Open, the 28-year-old needed the warm up events and the postponed European Championships to pick up points, prove himself to the selectors and get competition sharp.
"I was upset we were literally just preparing to go to the Belgium Open when we heard it was cancelled two days before," he says.
"It's definitely an annoying feeling to do all that preparation and work and to get myself back in a winning position but i think it's clear now it's a matter of life and death and we can all see that sport can take a back seat."
They've been told by the sports governing body, like everyone else, they need to wash their hands frequently and be mindful of personal hygiene "as professional athletes we have to be extra careful with this kind of thing, a potential illness this close to the Games could completely sideline your preparation anyway."
Muhammad suspects that the Olympics will have to be pushed back even though the IOC have stated this week that the games will go ahead on time as planned, and Tokyo 2020 organisers received the Olympic flame in a ceremony at Athens' Panathenaic stadium on Thursday.
But many athletes can't train or compete as they normally would in an Olympic build-up period, meaning most would go to the games underprepared.
Gold medal favourites such as Heptathlon World Champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who is based in France, has highlighted this on social media.
I understand that sport isn’t everything and there are more important issues sourrounding coronavirus but thought I would speak out purely on what my situation of it has been. Hope the UK, France and the rest of the world stay safe and look after each other in these crazy times❤️ pic.twitter.com/0zxECDetpM— KJT (@JohnsonThompson) March 17, 2020
"The information of the IOC and local government are at odds with one another," she said. "The IOC advice 'encourages athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games as best they can' but government legislation is enforcing isolation at home, with tracks, gyms and public spaces closed".
Even so, Muhammad can't bear the thought that the games could be cancelled completely.
"It would be a major disappointment," he says. "How many thousands of athletes have prepared for this for four years, you say four years but really it's a lifetime of training.
"We've had these dreams and aspirations since we were little boys and girls to go to the Olympics and represent our country and hopefully win a medal. With just a couple of months to go if it were to get cancelled it would be devastating."
In truth, he is one of the lucky ones. GB Taekwondo in Manchester remains open allowing athletes to at least carry on training for an Olympics that may, or may not, happen.
IOC urged to consult athletes over Games plans
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should review plans to go ahead with the Tokyo Olympics during the coronavirus pandemic and ensure dialogue with athletes, the Sport and Rights Alliance (SRA) and the World Players Association (WPA) said on Saturday.
Tokyo organisers and the IOC have maintained that the Games should go ahead as scheduled but WPA executive director Brendan Schwab said the IOC must consult more athletes before making decisions.
"With the world in a pandemic, holding mega-sporting events including the Olympic Games demands a deep review and broader consultations than are occurring now, including with athletes and their representatives," Schwab said in a statement.
"The IOC needs to elevate its dialogue with the full range of those most affected beyond sponsors and governments to an open multi-stakeholder process that brings to the table as equals player associations as the representatives of athletes and others most at risk."
Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch which is part of the SRA coalition of global non-governmental organisations, said sports bodies had to be more transparent at this time.
"The virus is impacting the health, human rights, employment and careers of athletes but also the well-being of millions whose livelihoods are dependent on the sports industry and its supply chain," Worden said.